Over the hills and far away
Taking a left off U.S. 64 onto Settawig Road in rural Clay County, the busy commercial thoroughfare transforms into lush farmland. The mountain air gets sweeter, soothing late spring sunshine spilling into the open windows of your vehicle.
A few miles down the winding road, you enter the tiny community of Brasstown, with its one gas station and handful of buildings. You take another left and cross a bridge into Cherokee County. And though that bridge may just seemingly provide transport over the waters of Brasstown Creek, one will soon understand that the threshold is more than meets the eye.
Across a vast meadow is the John C. Campbell Folk School. And though you may be in the middle of nowhere in Western North Carolina, you’re actually at the center of the universe.
“There is nothing like this on earth. This place opens up, sparks and reawakens people,” said Pam East, a metal jewelry/clay instructor. “You’re in this beautiful setting, you’re not in the thick of life, you’re away from all the things that distract you. Being with people is important, connecting with people is important, and here, you do that.”
Specializing in an array of year-round weeklong courses, the 300-acre Folk School, established in 1925, attracts people from every corner of the globe. Students spend their days immersed in their chosen course, which reads like a “Pick Your Own Adventure” book where one can take blacksmithing or broom making, mandolin or pottery, wood-burning or jewelry.
“The Folk School is a restorative thing, it balances you out and makes you feel human,” said Marketing Manager Keather Gougler. “We’re curious by nature and these folks coming here are curious about themselves and their creative potential.”
“We all have a built-in memory of how to do these skills, how to use our hands to create,” added Jan Davidson, director of the Folk School. “Humans have been doing these things for so long, and we’ve also been separated from these things for so long, too, so when you get in touch with it again, it’s in your soul, your intuition of being a human.”
Stepping into one of the classrooms, a wood-burning course is nearing the end of their morning session. At a nearby table, student Jim Davis is working on an owl design. Hailing from Louisiana, Davis figured he’s taken over 50 weeklong courses at the Folk School since first coming to Brasstown in 1992.
“I’ve taken cooking classes, basket weaving, rock hunting,” he said. “What’s not to like about this place? It’s as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.”
And for Davidson, he’s already working on what’s next for the Folk School. It’s about always keeping one foot firm in tradition, one in the progressive evolution and creative spirit that embodies the institution.
“We’re going to build a walk-in silo kaleidoscope. To tell you the truth, we don’t yet know how it will exactly work, but we’re going to build it,” he confidently chuckled.